MICROSCOPIC EXAMINATION OF FECES

Published in Clinical Pathology
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 23:26
Microscopic examinations done on fecal sample are shown in Figure 846.1.
 
Figure 846.1 Microscopic examinations carried out on fecal sample
Figure 846.1 Microscopic examinations carried out on fecal sample
 
Collection of Specimen for Parasites
 
A random specimen of stool (at least 4 ml or 4 cm³) is collected in a clean, dry, container with a tightly fitting lid (a tin box, plastic box, glass jar, or waxed cardboard box) and transported immediately to the laboratory (this is because trophozoites of Entameba histolytica rapidly degenerate and alter in morphology). About 20-40 grams of formed stool or 5-6 tablespoons of watery stool should be collected. Stool should not be contaminated with urine, water, soil, or menstrual blood. Urine and water destroy trophozoites; soil will introduce extraneous organisms and also hinder proper examination. Parasites are best detected in warm, freshly passed stools and therefore stools should be examined as early as possible after receipt in the laboratory (preferably within 1 hour of collection). If delay in examination is anticipated, sample may be refrigerated. A fixative containing 10% formalin (for preservation of eggs, larvae, and cysts) or polyvinyl alcohol (for preservation of trophozoites and cysts, and for permanent staining) may be used if specimen is to be transported to a distant laboratory.
 
One negative report for ova and parasites does not exclude the possibility of infection. Three separate samples, collected at 3-day intervals, have been recommended to detect all parasite infections.
 
Patient should not be receiving oily laxatives, antidiarrheal medications, bismuth, antibiotics like tetracycline, or antacids for 7 days before stool examination. Patient should not have undergone a barium swallow examination.
 
In the laboratory, macroscopic examination is done for consistency (watery, loose, soft or formed) (Figure 846.2), color, odor, and presence of blood, mucus, adult worms or segments of tapeworms.
 
Figure 846.2 Consistency of feces
Figure 846.2 Consistency of feces
 
Trophozoites are most likely to be found in loose or watery stools or in stools containing blood and mucus, while cysts are likely to be found in formed stools. Trophozoites die soon after being passed and therefore such stools should be examined within 1 hour of passing. Examination of formed stools can be delayed but should be completed on the same day.
 
Color/Appearance of Fecal Specimens
 
  • Brown: Normal
  • Black: Bleeding in upper gastrointestinal tract (proximal to cecum), Drugs (iron salts, bismuth salts, charcoal)
  • Red: Bleeeding in large intestine, undigested tomatoes or beets
  • Clay-colored (gray-white): Biliary obstruction
  • Silvery: Carcinoma of ampulla of Vater
  • Watery: Certain strains of Escherichia coli, Rotavirus enteritis, cryptosporidiosis
  • Rice water: Cholera
  • Unformed with blood and mucus: Amebiasis, inflammatory bowel disease
  • Unformed with blood, mucus, and pus: Bacillary dysentery
  • Unformed, frothy, foul smelling, which float on water: Steatorrhea.
 
Preparation of Slides
 
After receipt in the laboratory, saline and iodine wet mounts of the sample are prepared (Figure 846.3).
 
Figure 846.3 Saline and iodine wet mounts of fecal sample
Figure 846.3 Saline and iodine wet mounts of fecal sample 
 
A drop of normal saline is placed near one end of a glass slide and a drop of Lugol iodine solution is placed near the other end. A small amount of feces (about the size of a match-head) is mixed with a drop each of saline and iodine using a wire loop, and a cover slip is placed over each preparation separately. If the specimen contains blood or mucus, that portion should be included for examination (trophozoites are more readily found in mucus). If the stools are liquid, select the portion from the surface for examination.
 
Saline wet mount is used for demonstration of eggs and larvae of helminths, and trophozoites and cysts of protozoa. It can also detect red cells and white cells. Iodine stains glycogen and nuclei of the cysts. The iodine wet mount is useful for identification of protozoal cysts. Trophozoites become non-motile in iodine mounts. A liquid, diarrheal stool can be examined directly without adding saline.
 
Concentration Procedure
 
Concentration of fecal specimen is useful if very small numbers of parasites are present. However, in concentrated specimens, amebic trophozoites can no longer be detected since they are destroyed. If wet mount examination is negative and there is clinical suspicion of parasitic infection, fecal concentration is indicated. It is used for detection of ova, cysts, and larvae of parasites.
 
Various concentration methods are available; the choice depends on the nature of parasites to be identified and the equipment/reagent available in a particular laboratory. Concentration techniques are of two main types:
 
  • Sedimentation techniques: Ova and cysts settle at the bottom. However, excessive fecal debris may make the detection of parasites difficult. Example: Formolethyl acetate sedimentation procedure.
  • Floatation techniques: Ova and cysts float on surface. However, some ova and cysts do not float at the top in this procedure. Examples: Saturated salt floatation technique and zinc sulphate concentration technique.
 
The most commonly used sedimentation method is formol-ethyl acetate concentration method since: (i) it can detect eggs and larvae of almost all helminths, and cysts of protozoa, (ii) it preserves their morphology well, (iii) it is rapid, and (iv) risk of infection to the laboratory worker is minimal because pathogens are killed by formalin.
 
In this method, fecal suspension is prepared in 10% formalin (10 ml formalin + 1 gram feces). This suspension is then passed through a gauze filter till 7 ml of filtered material is obtained. To this, ethyl acetate (3 ml) is added and the mixture is centrifuged for 1 minute. Eggs, larvae, and cysts sediment at the bottom of the centrifuge tube (Figure 846.4). Above this deposit, there are layers of formalin, fecal debris, and ether. Fecal debris is loosened with an applicator stick and the supernatant is poured off. One drop of sediment is placed on one end of a glass slide and one drop is placed at the other end. One of the drops is stained with iodine, cover slips are placed, and the preparation is examined under the microscope.
 
Figure 846.4 Formol ethyl acetate concentration technique
Figure 846.4 Formol-ethyl acetate concentration technique
 
Classification of Intestinal Parasites of Humans
 
Intestinal parasites of humans are classified into two main kingdoms: protozoa and metazoa (helminths) (Figure 846.5).
 
Figure 846.5 Classification of intestinal parasites of humans
Figure 846.5 Classification of intestinal parasites of humans

CHEMICAL EXAMINATION OF FECES

Published in Clinical Pathology
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 01:21
Chemical examination of feces is usually carried out for the following tests (Figure 845.1):
 
  • Occult blood
  • Excess fat excretion (malabsorption)
  • Urobilinogen
  • Reducing sugars
  • Fecal osmotic gap
  • Fecal pH
 
Figure 845.17 Chemical examinations done on fecal sample
Figure 845.1 Chemical examinations done on fecal sample
 
Test for Occult Blood in Stools
 
Presence of blood in feces which is not apparent on gross inspection and which can be detected only by chemical tests is called as occult blood. Causes of occult blood in stools are:
 
  1. Intestinal diseases: hookworms, amebiasis, typhoid fever, ulcerative colitis, intussusception, adenoma, cancer of colon or rectum.
  2. Gastric and esophageal diseases: peptic ulcer, gastritis, esophageal varices, hiatus hernia.
  3. Systemic disorders: bleeding diathesis, uremia.
  4. Long distance runners.
 
Occult blood test is recommended as a screening procedure for detection of asymptomatic colorectal cancer. Yearly examinations should be carried out after the age of 50 years. If the test is positive, endoscopy and barium enema are indicated.
 
Tests for detection of occult blood in feces: Many tests are available which differ in their specificity and sensitivity. These tests include tests based on peroxidase-like activity of hemoglobin (benzidine, orthotolidine, aminophenazone, guaiac), immunochemical tests, and radioisotope tests.
 
Tests Based on Peroxidase-like Activity of Hemoglobin
 
Principle: Hemoglobin has peroxidase-like activity and releases oxygen from hydrogen peroxide. Oxygen molecule then oxidizes the chemical reagent (benzidine, orthotolidine, aminophenazone, or guaiac) to produce a colored reaction product.
 
Benzidine and orthotolidine are carcinogenic and are no longer used. Benzidine test is also highly sensitive and false-positive reactions are common. Since bleeding from the lesion may be intermittent, repeated testing may be required.
 
Causes of False-positive Tests
 
  1. Ingestion of peroxidase-containing foods like red meat, fish, poultry, turnips, horseradish, cauliflower, spinach, or cucumber. Diet should be free from peroxidase-containing foods for at least 3 days prior to testing.
  2. Drugs like aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which increase blood loss from gastrointestinal tract in normal persons.
 
Causes of False-negative Tests
 
  1. Foods containing large amounts of vitamin C.
  2. Conversion of all hemoglobin to acid hematin (which has no peroxidase-like activity) during passage through the gastrointestinal tract.
 
Immunochemical Tests
 
These tests specifically detect human hemoglobin. Therefore there is no interference from animal hemoglobin or myoglobin (e.g. meat) or peroxidase-containing vegetables in the diet.
 
The test consists of mixing the sample with latex particles coated with anti-human haemoglobin antibody, and if agglutination occurs, test is positive. This test can detect 0.6 ml of blood per 100 grams of feces.
 
Radioisotope Test Using 51Cr
 
In this test, 10 ml of patient’s blood is withdrawn, labeled with 51Cr, and re-infused intravenously. Radioactivity is measured in fecal sample and in simultaneously collected blood specimen. Radioactivity in feces indicates gastrointestinal bleeding. Amount of blood loss can be calculated. Although the test is sensitive, it is not suitable for routine screening.
 
Apt test: This test is done to decide whether blood in the vomitus or in the feces of a neonate represents swallowed maternal blood or is the result of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. The test was devised by Dr. Apt and hence the name. The baby swallows blood during delivery or during breastfeeding if nipples are cracked. Apt test is based on the principle that if blood is of neonatal origin it will contain high proportion of hemoglobin F (Hb F) that is resistant to alkali denaturation. On the other hand, maternal blood mostly contains adult hemoglobin or Hb A that is less resistant.
 
Test for Malabsorption of Fat
 
Dietary fat is absorbed in the small intestine with the help of bile salts and pancreatic lipase. Fecal fat mainly consists of neutral fats (unsplit fats), fatty acids, and soaps (fatty acid salts). Normally very little fat is excreted in feces (<7 grams/day in adults). Excess excretion of fecal fat indicates malabsorption and is known as steatorrhea. It manifests as bulky, frothy, and foul-smelling stools, which float on the surface of water.
 
Causes of Malabsorption of Fat
 
  1. Deficiency of pancreatic lipase (insufficient lipolysis): chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis.
  2. Deficiency of bile salts (insufficient emulsification of fat): biliary obstruction, severe liver disease, bile salt deconjugation due to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
  3. Diseases of small intestine: tropical sprue, celiac disease, Whipple’s disease.
 
Tests for fecal fat are qualitative (i.e. direct microscopic examination after fat staining), and quantitative (i.e. estimation of fat by gravimetric or titrimetric analysis).
 
  1. Microscopic stool examination after staining for fat: A random specimen of stool is collected after putting the patient on a diet of >80 gm fat per day. Stool sample is stained with a fat stain (oil red O, Sudan III, or Sudan IV) and observed under the microscope for fat globules (Figure 845.2). Presence of ≥60 fat droplets/HPF indicates steatorrhea. Ingestion of mineral or castor oil and use of rectal suppositories can cause problems in interpretation.
  2. Quantitative estimation of fecal fat: The definitive test for diagnosis of fat malabsorption is quantitation of fecal fat. Patient should be on a diet of 70-100 gm of fat per day for 6 days before the test. Feces are collected over 72 hours and stored in a refrigerator during the collection period. Specimen should not be contaminated with urine. Fat quantitation can be done by gravimetric or titrimetric method. In gravimetric method, an accurately weighed sample of feces is emulsified, acidified, and fat is extracted in a solvent; after evaporation of solvent, fat is weighed as a pure compound. Titrimetric analysis is the most widely used method. An accurately weighed stool sample is treated with alcoholic potassium hydroxide to convert fat into soaps. Soaps are then converted to fatty acids by the addition of hydrochloric acid. Fatty acids are extracted in a solvent and the solvent is evaporated. The solution of fat made in neutral alcohol is then titrated against sodium hydroxide. Fatty acids comprise about 80% of fecal fat. Values >7 grams/day are usually abnormal. Values >14 grams/day are specific for diseases causing fat malabsorption.
 
Figure 845.2 Sudan stain on fecal sample
Figure 845.2 Sudan stain on fecal sample: (A) Negative; (B) Positive
 
Test for Urobilinogen in Feces
 
Fecal urobilinogen is determined by Ehrlich’s aldehyde test (see  Article “Test for Detection of Urobilinogen in Urine). Specimen should be fresh and kept protected from light. Normal amount of urobilinogen excreted in feces is 50-300 mg per day. Increased fecal excretion of urobilinogen is seen in hemolytic anemia. Urobilinogen is deceased in biliary tract obstruction, severe liver disease, oral antibiotic therapy (disturbance of intestinal bacterial flora), and aplastic anemia (low hemoglobin turnover). Stools become pale or clay-colored if urobilinogen is reduced or absent.
 
Test for Reducing Sugars
 
Deficiency of intestinal enzyme lactase is a common cause of malabsorption. Lactase converts lactose (in milk) to glucose and galactose. If lactase is deficient, lactose is converted to lactic acid with production of gas. In infants this leads to diarrhea, vomiting, and failure to thrive. Benedict’s test or Clinitest™ tablet test for reducing sugars is used to test freshly collected stool sample for lactose. In addition, oral lactose tolerance test is abnormal (after oral lactose, blood glucose fails to rise above 20 mg/dl of basal value) in lactase deficiency. Rise in blood glucose indicates that lactose has been hydrolysed and absorbed by the mucosa. Lactose tolerance test is now replaced by lactose breath hydrogen testing. In lactase deficiency, accumulated lactose in the colon is rapidly fermented to organic acids and gases like hydrogen. Hydrogen is absorbed and then excreted through the lungs into the breath. Amount of hydrogen is then measured in breath; breath hydrogen more than 20 ppm above baseline within 4 hours indicates positive test.
 
Fecal Osmotic Gap
 
Fecal osmotic gap is calculated from concentration of electrolytes in stool water by formula 290-2([Na+] + [K+]). (290 is the assumed plasma osmolality). In osmotic diarrheas, osmotic gap is >150 mOsm/kg, while in secretory diarrhea, it is typically below 50 mOsm/kg. Evaluation of chronic diarrhea is shown in Figure 845.3.
 
Figure 845.3 Evaluation of chronic diarrhea
Figure 845.3 Evaluation of chronic diarrhea
 
Fecal pH
 
Stool pH below 5.6 is characteristic of carbohydrate malabsorption.

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